Why Monkey Mind Is Worse Than You Think— And What to Do About It

Why Monkey Mind Is Worse Than You Think— And What to Do About It

Many of us are going through much of our lives with a “monkey mind” that’s restless and easily distracted, with thoughts swinging wildly in different directions. (1) The problem is that chaos in our minds will bring chaos in our life, work, and leadership. It will make us anxious and make it harder for us to accomplish our goals.

Unfortunately, this monkey mind phenomenon is as common as it is old (the term having been coined by the Buddha), and it’s aggravated by the way we tend to work in our modern world.

I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the monkey mind.
The thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit, and howl.
My mind swings wildly through time, touching on dozens of ideas a minute, unharnessed and undisciplined.”
-Elizabeth Gilbert, writer

 

Signs of Our Monkey Mind Going Wild

How to know if we’re afflicted by a monkey mind? When our monkey mind is active, we:

  • have scattered thoughts
  • feel anxious, restless, and unsettled
  • find our mind wandering after just a short while of doing something
  • experience mental fatigue
  • feel impatient often
  • are often bouncing from thought to thought and task to task
  • have a hard time focusing on the present moment
  • spend a lot of time thinking about the past or the future
  • return to the same thought loops over and over again (rumination)

Our monkey mind is a bit like Curious George—always causing trouble. How much of our day do we spend worrying, complaining, or relitigating past sleights? How about assuming the worst and running worst-case scenarios through our minds again and again? These are telltale signs of the monkey mind in action.

Give anything to silence those voices ringing in your head.”
-from the song, “Learn to Be Still,” written by Don Henley and Stan Lynch, recorded by The Eagles

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The Problem with Our Monkey Mind

Though it’s common, monkey mind isn’t harmless. Its restless bouncing from thought to thought comes with many problems, including:

  1. making us anxious and restless
  2. amping up our stress levels
  3. impeding our ability to focus and concentrate
  4. inhibiting mental clarity
  5. preventing us from being in the moment, present with people, or focused on the task at hand
  6. pushing others away if they find it draining or chaotic
  7. reducing our sense of calm and wellbeing
  8. disrupting our sleep
  9. pulling us away from the things that matter most
  10. reducing our contentment and happiness
  11. becoming a lifelong habit that harms our mental health, quality of life, and career

Monkey mind is related to what psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow, called “psychic entropy,” a condition of inner disorder that impairs our control over our attention and our effectiveness. With psychic entropy, a negative feedback loop can form in which we feel unpleasant emotions that make it hard for us to focus, thus causing us to fail in achieving our goals, then starting the cycle all over again—and sapping our confidence. He wrote, “Prolonged experiences of this kind can weaken the self to the point that it is no longer able to invest attention and pursue its goals.”

 

How Our Monkey Mind Inhibits Our Leadership

A monkey mind can also haunt leaders and managers. Think of Karen, a busy executive facing a steady stream of challenges in her work. At breakfast, she’s preoccupied with the presentation she will give to an important customer later, and she’s running late. She’s also worried about her son’s new friends. In her two morning meetings, she’s thinking about what to do with Jerry, a longtime colleague who’s been struggling with an important new project, and how to approach the upcoming board meeting.

When she calls her husband over lunch, she remembers that she forgot to schedule her car for service. In her customer meeting, she nails the delivery but then spirals into self-doubt when the conversation turns to future product releases, and she relives a heated exchange she had with the IT team this week.

At the gym after work, she’s revisiting her answers to the customer’s questions about functionality, and at dinner with her family she’s wondering again about what to do with Jerry. In bed that night, she’s reading a novel, but her mind keeps drifting to the problems of the day, so she must go back and re-read almost every other page. When the lights are out, her head keeps spinning.

If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is.
If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm,
and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things—
that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more.
Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.
You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.”
-Steve Jobs

Monkey mind inhibits our leadership by:

  1. leading us to poor, impulsive decisions or slowing down our decision-making
  2. making us more reactive than proactive
  3. harming our credibility
  4. preventing us from focusing on our priorities
  5. reducing our executive presence
  6. preventing us from listening well to others
  7. frustrating our colleagues
  8. killing our enjoyment of our free time
  9. increasing our stress and anxiety
  10. harming our sleep

Monkey mind relates to many of the leadership derailers that inhibit our leadership effectiveness, potentially including avoiding tough issues, being a bottleneck on big decisions, causing chaos for the team, not being sufficiently clear, becoming ego-centric, being hyper-critical, impulsive, indecisive, or insecure, not listening well, being obsessive or perfectionistic, being pessimistic or prone to overreaction, and becoming a workaholic.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

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What to Do About It

We’ve seen how our monkey mind can detract from our work, leadership, and quality of life. So, what to do about it? Here’s a punch list of things we can do to start addressing our monkey mind:

Think of our monkey mind as something to befriend as opposed to an enemy we need to vanquish. In some ways, it’s built into our brain’s design. Calm redirection will serve us much better than judgment and resentment. According to Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, “if we create a calm space for the monkey mind to jump around in, it will eventually settle down.” (2)

Meditate. With meditation, we can train our minds to become more present, focused, and still. We can train our attention and awareness, helping us feel calm and clear. Studies have found that meditation can lead to improvements in brain function, blood pressure, metabolism, sleep, focus, concentration, and even our lifespan, as well as alleviation of stress and pain. University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has conducted experiments on the effects of meditation on the brain. His results suggest that meditation may lead to change in the physical structure of the brain regions associated with attention, fear, anger, compassion, anxiety, and depression. (See the Appendix below for some common types of meditation.)

Be here now.
-Ram Dass, Be Here Now

Breathe deeply and do breath work. During breathing practices, we can place our attention on our breath (e.g., we can focus on the top of our head when we breathe in and our diaphragm when we breathe out). This can include deep breathing exercises, such as box breathing in which we breathe in while slowly counting to four, hold our breath for four seconds, slowly exhale for four seconds, and then hold our breath again. (Each of these four steps forms one side of an imaginary box.) Then repeat the process.

Being aware of your breath forces you into the present moment—
the key to all inner transformation.
-Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

Engage in mindful, offline activities. When we’re doing something—anything—place our attention on what we’re doing and only that. Focus on the sensations of washing the dishes on our hands or the taste, texture, and smell of the food we’re eating. Meanwhile, we should engage more in real-world offline activities. Read a book. Play a musical instrument. Go for a walk. Watch the squirrels and birds in our backyard. And we should be mindful and present while doing it, bringing our attention back to the moment when it wanders.

Play the “game of fives.” Writer Marelisa Fabrega recommends pausing our thinking and noticing five things in our vicinity that we see, hear, or smell. Then, fully experience them. It may help to pretend that it’s the first time we’ve ever experienced that sight, sound, or smell. When we do this, all our attention moves to the present moment.

Reduce distractions. It seems like the modern world is designed to agitate our monkey mind with a barrage of inputs and distractions, from texts and emails to videos, breaking news alerts, streaming shows, and social media posts. Put our smartphones away (out of sight) and turn off notifications. The key here is breaking our addiction to numbing and distraction, in which our brains are constantly flooded with stimuli designed to capture and control our attention. Along these lines, we should wean ourselves from the habit of taking out our smartphone every time we get bored. That mindless, compulsive behavior only stimulates the monkeys in our mind to race quickly from thought to thought as we keep swiping.

Take breaks in between activities. Grab a cup of coffee. Gaze at the horizon. Get some fresh air and sunshine. Take some deep breaths. Take a nap. Even short breaks are restorative.

There is more to life than increasing its speed.
-Mahatma Gandhi

Journal. Jotting down our thoughts and feelings in a diary or journal can be beneficial because it allows us to express our emotions freely, clear out distressing thoughts, organize our thoughts, gain new insights, recover a sense of control, find patterns, and deepen our understanding of the events in our lives (and ourselves). According to research studies, journaling can help with anxiety, hostility, and depression. It’s been linked to measurable effects on our health and immune system response. Tip: For best results, include both thoughts and feelings when journaling (and avoid rehashing troubling thoughts over and over), and consider adding some drawing or doodling to the text as well. (See my article, “Journaling: Benefits and Best Practices.”)

Practice self-care. Engage in regular self-care practices, including sleep, exercise, nutrition, and relaxation. Turn these into habits and regular routines. All of these can have calming effects on our minds through various mechanisms that are well documented.

Find sanctuary. Create a space of sanctuary associated with a calm mind, such as a place to think or write, or a place to meditate or pray. It can be a place of worship, a quiet retreat in the backyard, a trail in the woods, a quiet park nearby, or a peaceful kayaking outing on a lake. For some people, it can simply be a centering practice, and not necessarily a place.

Get out into nature. More than a hundred studies have documented the benefits of being in or living near nature—and even viewing nature in images and videos. According to the research, it can have positive impacts on our thoughts, brains, feelings, bodies, and social interactions—including reduced stress, enhanced recovery from illness, and changes in our behavior that improve our mood and overall wellbeing. Viewing nature can calm our nervous system and lead to a cascade of positive emotions that can in turn promote things like creativity, connection, cooperation, kindness, generosity, and resilience. Experiencing nature can also induce powerful feelings like awe, wonder, and reverence. Unfortunately, many of us today suffer from what environmental writer Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” (See my article, “The Benefits of Nature and Getting Outside.”)

Do deep work. In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport notes that to produce at our peak level we need to be able to do “deep work”—working “for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.” Such deep work is now as valuable as it is rare, and it will be a big differentiator for those who develop the capacity to do it well. It requires discipline and weaning our minds from the easy comforts of distraction. “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.

Write things down. If our monkey mind is bouncing between several thoughts and worried about missing or forgetting things, the simple act of writing things down can be surprisingly reassuring for many of us.

Use a shutdown ritual at the end of each workday. Newport also recommends implementing a strict shutdown ritual at the end of our workday. For every incomplete task, goal, or project we face, we should either have a plan for its completion or capture it in a place where we can revisit it later. That way, we’ll know “it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day.”

Engage in activities that put us in a state of “flow.” Professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi characterized flow as a state of complete absorption, almost effortless attention, and peak performance. In flow, he writes, we invest our attention fully in the task at hand, and we function at our greatest capacity. When in a flow state, we’re so engaged in what we’re doing that we stop thinking about ourselves as separate from the activity. We’re so absorbed in it that time seems to slow down or stop for us. How to experience flow more often? We need three things:

  1. a clear set of goals
  2. clear and immediate feedback so we can tell if we’re advancing toward our goals
  3. the right balance between the challenges we face and our skills (if there’s too little challenge, we’ll get bored, and if there’s too much challenge, we’ll feel anxiety)

Serve others. The monkey mind tends to be ego-centric, focusing mostly on ourselves. We can disrupt that narcissistic loop by focusing instead on serving others—and being present in the act of contributing.

Find and embrace things worthy of our focus. Too often, our monkey mind is ruminating about things of little significance. We should be disciplined in dedicating more of our lives to things that matter—to things that honor our purpose and core values and allow us to contribute to others and make an impact—with consistent routines.

If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions
you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing,
and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”
-David Brooks, “The Art of Focus

 

Conclusion

We’ve seen that the monkey mind can cause great suffering in our lives and be a real disruptor in our work. And we’ve covered many ways to address it.

The result should be a mental disposition that more often than not is the opposite of monkey mind—one of tranquility and inner peace. A disposition of acceptance (or “nonresistance” as the Buddhists call it) and of equanimity and ease.

Filipe Bastos from MindOwl makes a distinction between monkey mind and “monk mind,” which entails presence, focus, compassion, discipline, perspective, and consciousness. See the image below.

Monkey Mind and Monk Mind
Source: MindOwl

The good news is that our brains have an amazing capability to rewire their neural pathways. With neuroplasticity, our brain’s neural networks can change through growth and reorganization. As a result, investments in our focus, attention, and consciousness can pay real dividends over time if we commit to daily practice over time.

Science writer Winifred Gallagher notes that the findings from many disciplines “suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience…. Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on…. I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”

Here’s to a life in which we can focus attention on things that are worthy of it, thus lifting us up.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you struggling with the chaos and disruption of a monkey mind, with thoughts swinging wildly in different directions, causing distraction and anxiety?
  2. How is it affecting your quality and enjoyment of life and work—and your productivity and performance?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Related Books

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Calming Our Monkey Mind

  • “Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.” -Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha)
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “What your future holds for you depends on your state of consciousness now.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
  • “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” -Ram Dass
  • “When you are tempted to control your mind, stand back and realize that the task is impossible to begin with. Even the most disciplined mind has a way of breaking out of its chains.” -Deepak Chopra, spiritual teacher and author
  • “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise you will miss most of your life.” -Jack Kornfield, author
  • “Many people are so completely identified with the voice in the head—the incessant stream of involuntary and compulsive thinking and the emotions that accompany it—that we may describe them as being possessed by their mind…. The greater part of most people’s thinking is involuntary automatic, and repetitive. It is no more than a kind of mental static and fulfills no real purpose. Strictly speaking, you don’t think: Thinking happens to you…. The voice in the head has a life of its own. Most people are at the mercy of that voice.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

 

Appendix: Some Common Type of Meditation Practice

  • Body scan meditation, in which we direct our attention to sensations happening in our body. We can mentally scan over every part of our body, from head to toe.
  • Focused attention meditation, in which we focus on one thing, such as our breath, and when our mind wanders to other thoughts, we gently bring our attention back to our breath.
  • Loving kindness meditation (also known as metta meditation), in which we silently repeat in our mind phrases of benevolence or good wishes directed at ourselves, people we love, neutral people, rivals, animals, and/or the world or universe.
  • Mindfulness meditation (also known as open monitoring meditation), in which we observe our thoughts nonjudgmentally without reacting to them, acknowledge them, and then let them go. It can also include deep breathing and bringing our attention to our mind and body. (3)
  • Transcendental meditation, in which we use a silent mantra repeated in our mind for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day, with an eventual aim of experiencing what they call “pure awareness” or “transcendental being.”

(1) The term “monkey mind” is attributed to the Buddha, and there are later uses of “mind monkey” expressions from the Later Qin dynasty in China. Side note: Apes are the ones that usually swing through the trees, while monkeys more often run on tree branches rather than swing.

(2) Source for this tip: Leo Babauta, “Monkey Mind: Shifting the Habit of Feeling Distracted Throughout the Day,” ZenHabits.net, undated.

(3) The default mode network includes regions of our brain that are active when our brains are idling (i.e., not focused on a specific task) and moving from thought to thought by default. According to researchers, mindfulness meditation can deactivate the regions of the brain associated with this network, perhaps even changing the structure of the brain over time, allowing us to switch off this network more and more.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Problem with Lack of Focus—And How to Fix It

Article Summary:

These days, we’re bombarded with digital distractions, and it’s detracting from our ability to get things done, our leadership effectiveness, and our quality of life. This article notes 15 of the most important benefits of focus and provides 24 actionable strategies for developing and maintaining our focus.

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

These days it feels like the world is dead-set against our having focus. We’re bombarded with digital distractions. There are near-constant requests for our attention, many driven by algorithms that have cracked the code on hijacking it.

So we struggle with overload and overwhelm. Our concentration is fragmented. We check our phones constantly.

In such a hostile environment, it’s exceedingly difficult for us to focus. But that’s a disaster, not only for our work productivity but also for our quality of life.

Focus is a complex cognitive phenomenon.* For our purposes here, it entails two main abilities:

  1. our ability to concentrate on something in front of us (such as an article or a person talking), channeling our full attention to it without distraction
  2. our ability to concentrate attention or effort on the most pressing needs out of an array of possibilities (such as our top priorities)

Think of a laser. Is our effort focused like a laser on what truly matters, or getting dispersed into a random assortment of tasks?

In today’s world of digital distraction, both levels of focus are in jeopardy. We see it in the data.

 

Unfocused Leaders

According to a survey of more than 35,000 leaders from thousands of companies across 100-plus countries, 73% of them reported feeling distracted from their current task some or most of the time. What’s more, 67% of leaders described their minds as cluttered.

The biggest sources of distraction for these leaders were:

  • demands of other people (26%)
  • competing priorities (25%)
  • general distractions (13%)
  • too big of a workload (12%)

Nearly all the leaders surveyed (96%) indicated that enhanced focus would be valuable or extremely valuable to them. The researchers concluded:

The ability to apply a calm, clear focus to the right tasks—at the right time, in the right way—is the key to exceptional results…. we have observed a direct correlation between a person’s focus level and their career advancement.”
-Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter**

According to research from Dr. Glenn Wilson at London’s Institute of Psychiatry, we pay a high price for the persistent interruptions and distractions we encounter. Here’s a summary of the findings written up in The Guardian:

Those distracted by emails and phone calls saw a ten-point fall in their IQ, twice that found in studies on the impact of smoking marijuana. More than half of the 1,100 participants said they always responded to an email immediately or as soon as possible, while 21% admitted they would interrupt a meeting to do so. Constant interruptions can have the same effect as the loss of a night’s sleep.
(Source: Harriet Griffey, “The Lost Art of Concentration,” The Guardian, October 14, 2018.)

In our age of skimming, scrolling, and swiping, some of us may be losing the ability to read books or study articles for more than a few minutes. Isn’t technology supposed to enrich our lives, not degrade them? We must avoid the sorry fate of becoming slaves to our machines.

A primary task of leadership is to direct attention. To do so, leaders must learn to focus their own attention….
Attention is the basis of the most essential of leadership skills—emotional, organizational, and strategic intelligence.
And never has it been under greater assault….
-Daniel Goleman

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

The Problem with Lack of Focus

We pay a price for our diminished ability to concentrate on the things in front of us and to concentrate effort on our most pressing needs.

When we’re not focused, we’re:

  • reading something over and over but not absorbing it
  • listening to people but having our mind wander so we don’t take their words in
  • zoning out in meetings or lectures
  • more likely to fall behind, causing stress and anxiety
  • busy all the time—busy, busy, busy
  • stressed, with stress hormones like cortisol overwhelming calming and feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine
  • dealing with repetitive, intrusive thoughts that we struggle to let go
  • tired and depleted
  • overworked and overwhelmed
  • not making significant progress on our most important tasks
  • jumping from task to task, flying around frenetically
  • beholden to working on things that are other people’s priorities, whatever is easiest in the moment, or whatever appears before us as we check emails and respond
  • constantly putting out fires (which is exhausting for us and chaotic and frustrating for those around us)
  • frequently switching between tasks (a big problem, since our brains can’t transition seamlessly across tasks; there’s a major delay and a cost in terms of our energy)
  • working on things that should be done by others or that should be automated
  • doing things that shouldn’t be done at all (the worst of all)

 

The Benefits of Focus

By contrast, there are many benefits when we cultivate our ability to focus and prioritize. Here are the most important benefits:

  1. better work quality
  2. higher productivity
  3. better decision-making
  4. enhanced ability to pursue goals intensely
  5. improved cognitive flexibility, allowing us to resist distractions and shift our focus away from unproductive things
  6. greater mental efficiency, since we’re not wasting valuable mental energy on distractions
  7. better time management
  8. full presence in the moment
  9. better capacity for learning
  10. enhanced creativity
  11. less stress
  12. help with managing harmful or unproductive thoughts and emotions
  13. improved ability to develop strong social relationships and empathize with others (by focusing on their point of view as well as our own)
  14. enhanced ability to remain calm under pressure and to recover from setbacks
  15. creation of mental stillness, allowing us to hear our inner voice and pay attention to our gut feelings, which can be critical in wise decision-making

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Develop Our Focus: Strategies and Approaches

So how do we develop our focus? Here are 24 actionable strategies and approaches:

  1. Observe our daily rhythms, including best and worst times for focused work as well as energy levels at different times and on different tasks. Then design our work and schedule to capture our greatest attention, energy, and focus.
  2. Take regular breaks, recognizing that our brains can’t focus all the time and that we need to toggle between focus and rest. (When we do so, we’re able to focus much better when we return from rest, according to the research.)
  3. Practice self-care, including good sleep habits (regular bedtimes, caffeine and device curfews, etc.), eating and hydration habits, and exercise habits to reduce stress and produce energy.
  4. Minimize interruptions and eliminate distractions. (Tip: turn off smartphone notifications and place the device outside the room when working.)
  5. Develop simple rules to maximize time in deep work (e.g., never check email before noon or another time that works for you).
  6. Engage our senses when we’re doing deep work (e.g., lighting a scented candle, playing classical music in the background, or working in a room with a beautiful design or view).
  7. Focus on one task at a time and avoid frequent task-switching, since we waste time regrouping and trying to recover our original flow when we switch tasks.
  8. Design our work for “flow.”
  9. Practice doing things that require concentration, such as reading books or playing games that requires mental focus.
  10. Engage in deep breathing and practice meditation.
  11. Reduce anxiety, stress, and negative self-talk.
  12. Develop clarity on what’s most important.
  13. Determine which tasks will make the highest possible contribution toward our most important aims.
  14. Clear the decks so we can focus on our most essential task for extended periods.
  15. Reduce or eliminate non-essential tasks. (Consider using a “stop doing list” or a “drop list.”)
  16. Schedule the most important tasks and impose deadlines on them. (Tip: be generous in the amount of time given for completion, as we tend to underestimate the time it will take, causing unhelpful stress.)
  17. Learn how to say “no” more often and more easily, especially to things that don’t fit with our top priorities.***
  18. Avoid “sunk cost bias” by asking if we weren’t invested in this already, how much would we invest in it now (with time, resources, etc.)—and considering what else could be done with our time or money.
  19. Get better at cutting our losses, recognizing that it’s a necessary and important part of life
  20. Systematically measure our progress on our most important tasks. (Getting feedback on progress helps maintain our attention.)
  21. Stop focusing so much on results and focus more on deep engagement with the process of doing things that matter (e.g., less focus on our target weight and more focus on the strategies we can learn for healthy eating, sleeping, moving, etc.).
  22. Experiment with different schedules that help us focus better (e.g., themed days, such as a Monday planning day, Tuesday prospecting day, Wednesday writing day, etc.). Or half-days.
  23. Be more disciplined in committing to one thing at a time, as opposed to having to divide our attention across multiple things.
  24. Make a “Done for the Day” list each morning—a list of what would constitute essential progress and that’s reasonable for a single day. (Source: Greg McKeown in Effortless.)

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Tools that Can Help with Focus

Beyond the strategies and approaches noted above, there are also many tools and frameworks that can help with focus and prioritization. Below are several of them:

1. Eisenhower Decision Matrix (a.k.a., Urgent-Important Matrix): distinguish between tasks that are urgent (time-sensitive, demanding immediate attention) and important (contributing to our long-term purpose and vision), using a simple matrix.

2. Warren Buffett’s Two Lists: write down our top 25 goals, then circle our five highest priorities from that larger list, and then only focus on the top five—“avoiding at all costs,” as Buffett says, working on the other 20.

3. Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, and without moving to the next task until the current one is complete.

4. Brian Tracy’s “Eat the Frog” method: identify one challenging and important task (the metaphorical frog) and complete it first thing in the morning. The logic:

The hardest part of any important task is getting started on it in the first place.
Once you actually begin work on a valuable task, you seem to be naturally motivated to continue….
The most valuable tasks you can do each day are often the hardest and most complex.
But the payoff and rewards for completing these tasks efficiently can be tremendous.
-Brian Tracy

Related Books

Since so many of us struggle with the challenge of staying focused in our world of constant distractions, it’s good that we have many excellent resources. Below are two helpful books that address the root causes of the problems, with select quotations from the books as well:

Essentialism (by Gregory McKeown):

  • “Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”
  • “The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better.”
  • “Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either.”
  • “Remember that if you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.”
  • “Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.”
  • “The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.” -Gregory McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Deep Work (by Cal Newport):

  • “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. The few who cultivate this skill and make it the core of their working life will thrive.”
  • “To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.”
  • “Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking.”
  • “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”
  • “What we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life.”
  • “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”
  • “To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.” -Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you struggling with concentrating on the things in front of you without distraction?
  2. Are you struggling with concentrating your effort on your most important tasks?
  3. Which focus and prioritization strategies and tools work best for you?
  4. Which new ones will you try, starting today?

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Focus and Prioritization

  • “If there is any one secret of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.” -Peter Drucker
  • “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” -Alexander Graham Bell
  • “The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” -Lin Yutang
  • “Learn to master your attention, and you will be in command of where you, and your organization, focus.” -Daniel Goleman
  • “Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives.” -Tony Robbins
  • “I don’t care how much power, brilliance or energy you have, if you don’t harness it and focus it on a specific target, and hold it there you’re never going to accomplish as much as your ability warrants.” -Zig Ziglar
  • “If you don’t guard your time, people will steal it from you.” -Pedro Sorrentino, investor
  • “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” -Steve Jobs
  • “Every time we say yes to a request, we are also saying no to anything else we might accomplish with the time.” -Tim Harford, economist
  • “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” -Peter Drucker
  • “Without focus, you can never achieve anything.” -Eric Phillips
  • “What you stay focused on will grow.” -Roy T. Bennett
  • “Where your attention goes, your time goes.” -Idowu Koyenikan
  • “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life!” -Christian Missionary Review, 1902
  • “Half the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings
  • “Focus is not a zero-sum game. Focus can be trained and planned. And with a bit of effort, your focus can be sustained throughout the day.” -Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter
  • “Focused leaders can command the full range of their own attention: They are in touch with their inner feelings, they can control their impulses, they are aware of how others see them, they understand what others need from them, they can weed out distractions and also allow their minds to roam widely, free of preconceptions.” -Daniel Goleman
  • “My role does not allow for a lack of focus. I can’t afford to be distracted. I must be on point. I have trained my focus while at work for 15 years, moment-to-moment. I feel the brain is like a muscle, and I exercise it all the time.” -Jean-Francois van Boxmeer, CEO of Heineken

Notes:
* Mental processes related to focus include:

  • cognitive control (placing our attention where we want it and keeping it there despite distractions or temptations to focus elsewhere)
  • selective attention (focusing on certain stimuli selectively when several occur simultaneously, such as focusing on one person’s voice in a crowded room)
  • open awareness (our attention is open and remains aware of everything that’s happening around us, instead of concentrating on one thing)

** Source: Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, “Are You Having Trouble Focusing? These Simple Strategies Will Help,” Harvard Business Blogs, December 26, 2017.

*** McKeown suggests saying “yes” only to the top 10% of opportunities we encounter, in part by using rigorous criteria for giving assent, such as whether the opportunity is exactly what we’re looking for. If it’s not a clear “yes,” it becomes a clear “no.”

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Designing Your Work for Flow

We’ve all heard of flow—that remarkable state of being in the zone and operating at our best. Many of us have experienced it. But what exactly is it? And how do we get into it? Have you experienced flow at work?

First, we note that the deep concentration and absorption associated with flow is becoming much harder to attain these days with all our alluring devices and their dopamine-driving distractions.

Just when we need it most, it’s becoming more and more elusive.

 

Complete Absorption

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor now at Claremont Graduate University, has dedicated much of his life to studying flow. In his interviews with athletes, artists, chess players, and rock climbers, he found that many of them moved into a state of flow—a “state of complete absorption in an activity and situation.”

Why did he call it “flow”? Many of the people he interviewed described the experience as if a rushing current of water carried them along. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic captures it beautifully:

“Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal… I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along—something powerful and generous…. I lose track of time and space and self…. I only rarely experience this feeling, but it’s the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don’t think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love.”

Csikszentmihalyi characterizes flow as a state of “optimal experience”—of almost effortless attention and peak performance. In flow, he says, we feel “a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”

Flow changes everything. Once you experience it, you’re changed forever. You glimpse a different way of working. After jockey Red Pollard’s come-back ride aboard Seabiscuit at the famous “hundred grander” at Santa Anita, a spectator said Pollard looked like “a man who temporarily had visited Olympus and still was no longer for this world.”

In flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, “Attention is fully invested in the task at hand, and the person functions at his or her fullest capacity…. You’re so involved in what you’re doing you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”

 

The Nature of Flow

What is flow, exactly? Flow involves three elements:

  • Complete absorption in an activity
  • Lack of anxiety about losing control
  • Altered sense of time

The last one is a telltale sign. Recall those times when you’re so engrossed in the activity that you’re astonished when you discover how much time has passed in the meantime. It feels timeless.

 

The Body and Brain in Flow

Flow isn’t just a poetic description of a magical state but also a bona fide physiological phenomenon. When in flow, according to researchers, our heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and our facial muscles relax. Neurological studies show that the brain expends less energy during flow compared to when it’s wrestling with a problem.

Flow is associated with a decrease in “psychic entropy”: an anxious state of mind, common for many of us, in which our brain is stuck in a frustrating loop of concern and disarray, with fragmented attention. With that dialed down or switched off, we’re able to engage fully and enjoy the experience.

 

Flow and Performance

How does flow affect performance? According to Csikszentmihalyi, “a host of studies have found a strong positive relationship between flow and performance.” He notes that flow is positively associated with artistic and scientific creativity, learning, effective teaching, peak performance in sports, and even skill development. The latter is important, because it means that the more we can get into flow, the better we can get at our chosen activity.

According to the research, flow experiences are fairly rare, but almost any kind of activity—work, studies, hobbies—can produce them. So how do we achieve flow?

 

The Conditions for Flow

According to the research, there are three necessary conditions for flow:

  • Clear set of goals
  • Clear and immediate feedback (so we can tell if we’re advancing toward our goals)
  • Balance between perceived challenges and skills, warranting our full attention (otherwise we’d experience boredom with too little challenge and feel anxiety with too much challenge)

Here’s where things get really interesting. Flow is not some mystical state that flow gremlins bestow upon us. It’s a mental state that we can invite by designing our work and context to meet these conditions.

Most of us live and work in a context today that makes achieving flow about as likely as winning the lottery. To invite flow, we need to get disciplined and systematic about doing what computer scientist Cal Newport calls “deep work”: working for extended periods with full concentration on a single task, free from distraction.

How to do this? In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he recommends that we decide where we’ll work (a pleasant, quiet place) and for how long and how (with rituals, rules, and standard processes). We also need breaks built into our day to allow us to recharge—and to let our subconscious mind wander.

Perhaps most importantly, we must minimize distractions.

Distractions block flow and open the floodgates to psychic entropy. Too many of us have surrendered to a life of shallow work and distractions.

What could we do with a life of deep work infused with flow?

Wishing you well with creating more flow at work.

 

Reflection Questions

  • When have you been in a state of flow?
  • What was the context, and what were you doing?
  • What ideas do you have for designing your work—and that of your team, if you have one—to invite flow?

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!